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Cognition

My Shelf, My Self

I buy books. Antiquated, I know.

I love the smell. I love scribbling in the margins and dog-earring pages. What I love most, though, is stepping back and looking at what I’ve collected. The obsessive-compulsive organizer in me is satisfied by the neat arrangement of rows; the varying heights, widths, and colors create a rhythm that satiates my desire for visual delight. Some people see my bookshelf and roll their eyes. “You still buy books?” Or worse, “You keep the books you’ve read?”

Yes, and yes—though I have a secret. I haven’t read half of them.

There’s a word for this (thanks Japan!):
Tsundoku (n.), the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other such unread books.

I’d argue that this concept isn’t relegated to the bookshelf. To digital practitioners, tsundoku probably sounds all too familiar: bookmarks and tutorials overflowing in desktop folders, resources saved for later use, open tabs of articles skimmed and forgotten. Yes, some of these things are actual trash. Go ahead and delete those. But I encourage you to keep the rest.

Practicing tsundoku may seem like the habit of a hoarder. For me, though, keeping a collection of the unread and unconsumed—physical or digital—is an acknowledgment of how much I have yet to learn. In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb coins the term anti-library while describing Umberto Eco’s own collection of unread books: “Read books are far less valuable than unread ones,” he writes. “The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means […] allows you to put there.” Rather than succumb to the thought that we’ll never be able to read every book or master every subject, we should keep anti-libraries, he argues, to identify a small fraction of those unknowns and make them knowable. A self-replenishing food source for our hungry brains.

In design and development, emphasis so often falls on the expertise of individuals and teams. Portfolios showcase prize-winning work and resumés highlight only skills that have been mastered. But what if we spent time focusing on the contents of our anti-libraries—the things we’d like to learn, the goals to which we aspire? Finding a balance between the known and the unknown keeps day-to-day work motivating. Those unread articles and unwatched tutorials are a reminder that there’s always a new skill to adopt or point of view to consider that could make you a more well-rounded designer/developer/what-have-you. The true expert stays curious.

This kind of thinking drew me to client services and, particularly, Happy Cog. Our small size allows for overlap between disciplines (designers dabbling in the command line—crazy, I know) and our projects span an assortment of industries. I get to become an expert in economic research, city bikeshares, and wedding dresses, depending on the day. There’s something to learn around every corner. Even writing blog posts like this can be strange territory for me and my peers. But I want to get better at it—so I’ve added some books and articles on writing to my anti-library. It’s as easy as that.

My shelves will never be ‘complete.’ There will always be more to collect, more to consume. The same is true of my abilities as a designer. Becoming complacent or overconfident would mean I’ve learned it all, which is simply impossible. So I embrace tsundoku and stay inquisitive. I’m content in knowing I’ve still got a long, long way to go.

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